I recently visited my maternal grandparents in Germany. Ever since I was young, I have been cognizant of wasting things, like water and electricity, at Oma and Opa’s (Grandma and Grandpa’s) house. I think their strict household is a result of the direct effect World War II had on them and the high taxes and energy costs they pay today. Even households not run by octogenarians are efficient; during my visit, my mother’s best friend in Germany, Irmgard, proudly presented her new bathroom, complete with a tankless water heater and waterless urinal.
As I traveled by train across Germany, I noticed a vast number of homes and businesses featured photovoltaics on the entire south-facing sides of their clay-tile or metal roofs. I hadn’t remembered solar energy being so popular when I last visited in 2005, so I asked Irmgard’s husband, Dieter, whether incentives had changed. He told me the German government began offering a feed-in tariff for PV installations in 2004. A home or business owner pays for the PV system without assistance and then has a 20-year contract with the utility in which he or she is paid a flat rate for the kilowatt hours produced. Initially, building owners were paid three times the retail price of electricity, but the value of new contracts decreases each year.
Although U.S. incentives are different, seeing PV systems on traditional stucco homes in the hills and valleys of Germany was encouraging. During my last visit, I noticed large-scale wind farms dotting the German landscape and wondered why wind power wasn't more readily embraced here. The following year, wind-power stories crossed my desk more often, and the fields of my Iowa hometown were planted with 66 wind turbines. I’m convinced it won’t be long before we see more U.S. homes and businesses generating power from the sun, like the Kelly-Woodford House, which is profiled in “greenhouse,” page 40.
As energy prices and demand continue to rise in the U.S., organizations like the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance to Save Energy are working to improve building codes, technology and policy to achieve greater energy security. Read about the nonprofit in a “perspectives” interview with Jeffrey Harris, vice president for programs, page 65. This issue also features Heifer International, Little Rock, Ark., and the Katherine K. Hanley Family Shelter, Fairfax, Va., in the “feature,” page 24, and “ecommercial,” page 48, respectively. These nonprofit efforts are enriching people’s lives while saving energy and protecting the environment through sustainable structures.
The work of the Alliance to Save Energy and the projects profiled in this issue demonstrate energy-efficiency progress in the U.S. But there is much more to learn, and many of our lessons can be taken from Europe. Check out “greenscene,” page 53, which describes Managing Urban Europe-25, a pilot program that helped cities from nine European countries incorporate sustainability into their day-to-day government practices. Just as wind turbines and PV have gained greater acceptance in the U.S., I don't think it will be long before we see our local, state and federal governments take a more active role in energy efficiency. Perhaps the November elections will help.